The myth of being “on leave”

This weekend, I spent some time hanging out with some of my lovely neighbors. As we were chatting about our kids and work and such, someone asked “So when are you returning to work from parental leave?”

I gave my standard answer (spring term), of course. But mentally I was reviewing this week’s calendar and to-do list. The 2 job candidates coming in this week mean I have to be on campus 2 afternoons for 2 meetings and 2 job talks. (My spouse went back to work this week, which means we are juggling schedules to make this happen.) This also means I have to review the 2 candidates’ files before I meet with them (ideally!). I have 5 letters of recommendation for 4 different students that are due between now and next Monday. Which means 5 different web sites, formats, and sets of questions to deal with. I’ve only written for two of the students before, so I have to draft 2 letters from scratch. (Looking ahead, there are a bunch more letters due around mid-February, also for students for whom I haven’t previously written.)

Now, let me mention before I go further into this post that my department, and particularly my department chair, has been amazing, even though my last-minute change of leave is causing a fair amount of inconvenience. They are, I think, more protective of my time than I am, and have taken great pains to make sure that I am only involved in the most crucial things—things like the department review, and hiring, which were scheduled before my leave changed—and in the most minimal way possible. They have also largely let me decide how much I can contribute to the review and hiring, and have honored my choices. I’m very grateful to work in such a supportive environment.

But the fact is, I’m tenured faculty, and there’s a limit to how much “on leave” I can be. Sure, I could refuse all requests to write letters for students, but I’ve worked closely with all of the students for whom I’m writing letters and in some cases can write the strongest letters for them. I suppose I could refuse, on principle, to participate in our department review, and not meet with the external reviewers—but as a tenured member of the department, I have a deeply vested interest in making sure our department is headed in the right direction. Ditto with hiring.¬†And I haven’t even talked about research, which again theoretically could stop for a few months. But we just got a paper weakly rejected from a conference that can and should be turned around quickly. If I stopped paying attention to my research for a few months, the startup costs to get back into the swing of things would be heavy. So ideally I need to be thinking about research, finding a new venue for the paper and fixing its (minor) flaws, etc.

So I’ll continue to spend my days chasing around an active toddler, my nights hoping that said toddler will sleep through the night, and squeezing in work¬†during naptime and that little sliver of time between the kiddos’ bedtime and my bedtime. Even though some days I’d rather be playing video games or napping or reading or cleaning up the playroom that now perpetually looks like it was hit by a tornado. And when someone comments on how nice it must be to be on leave from my job, I’ll just grit my teeth and grin and say “Yes, isn’t it?”.